Filler content courtesy of the beautiful ones

A bunch of five that originally appeared in Black Static #30:-

THE BEAUTIFUL ONES

FLAME & OTHER ENGIMATIC TALES (Sarob Press hb, 145pp, £22.50) is the first collection from the writing duo of L. H. Maynard & M. P. N. Sims (now presenting as Maynard Sims) since 2004’s Falling into Heaven. Produced in a limited edition of 140 numbered copies, it consists of four short stories bracketed by two novellas, plus an afterword by the authors and evocative illustrations by talented artist Paul Lowe.

‘Serenity’ is the tale of Jona Lewis, who leaves the Civil Service and looks forward to a peaceful retirement, but then ends up in a haunted house when he offers to help out an old friend. A barrage of understated effects and oblique hints that not all is quite how it should be build gradually to an ending that contains a different kind of haunted house and the subtle suggestion that maybe the protagonist has got what he wanted after all, as past and present entwine. ‘Jealousy’ finds a young actress threatened by her lustful stalker, a young man with a penchant for voodoo, the story selling the reader a dummy before revealing the real nature of the menace, but slightly over the top at the end and, for me at least, not quite convincing in the way in which the elderly male protagonist becomes embroiled in the ‘heroine’s’ plight.

In the years since Heaven, among other things, the writers have been chronicling the novel length adventures of Department 18, one of those little known government agencies that helps preserve consensus reality for us all by seeing off the things that go bump in the night. ‘Assignment’ tells what happens when Robert Carter, the Department’s star psychic, visits a country mansion to battle an ancient evil, the story intriguing and with some gratifyingly larger than life characters, but perhaps a bit too rushed to give its effects a chance to sink in, and with an ending that doesn’t quite satisfy. My gut feeling is that it could have benefited from greater length. In ‘Fallen’, the shortest of these stories, a man goes to his school reunion with the intention of hooking up with the one who got away, but from there it segues into a variation on ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, quite chilling in its way, though a trifle contrived.

Which leaves the two novellas. I’ve already reviewed ‘Double Act’ in Black Static when it was published as a standalone a few years back and see no point rehashing that here, but I will post my earlier review to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com at some point in September. The other novella, ‘Flames’, explores a subject the duo have tackled before, the evil of the Tashkai, supernatural creatures who enslave and steal the abilities of others, with particularly nasty side effects. The story builds effortlessly, giving us several well rounded characters and a compelling narrative, incorporating ancient legend and lashings of sex and violence, with an ambiguous ending and the subtext that for all their power the Tashkai are not happy, they can get ability but not the vital spark of passion. It was a satisfying end to a collection in which each piece had something going for it, but the longer works were the ones that performed best.

With blurbs from twelve of the great and the good, including Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell and Neil Gaiman, RUMOURS OF THE MARVELLOUS (Alchemy Press/Airgedlamh Productions hb, 240pp, £19.99) contains fourteen short stories by Peter Atkins, an introduction by Glen Hirshberg, and is limited to 250 signed and numbered copies. Perhaps best known for his script writing on the Hellraiser film series, on this evidence Atkins is a writer I’d place firmly in the ‘yarn spinner’ category, something conveyed perfectly by Les Edwards’ eye-catching dust jacket illustration, with the genial author, cigar set firmly in hand, smiling and blissfully unaware or indifferent to whatever is lurking in the shadows behind him. Atkins’ work is similar in approach to that of Joe R. Lansdale but with his own unique and beguiling voice, the stories remarkable for their combination of a light touch with the weightier emotional freight they sometimes carry.

The collection opens with ‘King of Outer Space’, an Outer Limits style piece in which a woman learns the truth about the death of her boyfriend, and that his intelligence lives on in a solipsistic environment. Atkins likes to experiment with form on occasion, and here the use of snatches of filmic description between the more ‘prosaic’ patches helps to carry a charmingly sentimental albeit rather unlikely tale. Next up is the first of three stories to feature the character Kitty Donnelly, private investigator of sorts and magnet for all things paranormal. In ‘Stacy and Her Idiot’ Kitty is confronted with a drug deal gone wrong that segues into an attempt to raise an otherworldly entity, with the feisty, in your face first person narration a real delight to read. Sadness dominates in ‘Between the Cold Moon and the Earth’, as a young man gets the chance to say goodbye to an old friend who has committed suicide, and in a way that celebrates their shared love of stories, the text filled with arch weirdness that reflects the inner mental landscape of the person sharing.

Written in rhyming verse, ‘Doctor Arcadia’ tells of a psychic detective of sorts, who is called in to ‘cleanse’ a house where the spirits of murder victims linger, the mode of telling extremely effective, with subtle hints in the text of what is really going on and a neat twist at the end. There’s more arch weirdness in ‘The Cubist’s Attorney’, which involves the unusual legacy left by a painter, and is far more out there than that brief description can convey, with the appeal of the story in the nature of the legacy involved and the convoluted means by which we arrive at that resolution. A lost film, the eponymous ‘Prisoners of the Inferno’, lures a collector and cinephile to his doom, the story slowly but surely moving from a humorous take on the foibles of dealers through to something far more sinister.

Kitty Donnelly is back for ‘The Girl in the Blue Volcano’, neatly turning the tables on a club owner with a penchant for human sacrifice, and again the joy of the story is in the delightful mode of the telling and the way in which our canny heroine manages to be always one step ahead of her opponents. There’s a lovely tongue in cheek feel to black comedy ‘The Show Must Go On’, as a scriptwriter pitches new ideas to a studio executive against the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse. ‘Aviatrix’ is the death fantasy of a man who dies in a plane crash, a man afraid of flying who dreams of riding above the clouds with an Amelia Earhart clone, the story eminently readable but thematically the least interesting of what is on offer, in large part due to its ‘all a dream’ quality.

In ‘The Last of the Invisible Kings’ a woman alone at a train station is saved from the attentions of two street thugs by the intervention of an elderly musician, the story building beautifully to a dramatic and gratifying pay off as the true nature of our good Samaritan becomes apparent. We end with two character reprises. Dr Arcadia is back for ‘Frumpy Little Beat Girl’, saving the multiverse from annihilation, again with marvellous characterisation and a sense of the numinous lurking in the background until it emerges fully grown, with an ironical subtext as to how we should never underestimate anyone, not even ourselves. And finally ‘Dancing Like We’re Dumb’ is another Kitty Donnelly story, basically the same plot recycled as in the previous piece, but with enough prose exuberance and incidental invention to elevate it to the status of a suitably enjoyable ending to a fine collection.

Rumours is a beautifully produced book, like all of those reviewed in this section, and will no doubt reach out to the collector demographic, but for those of us who worship content but aren’t so fussed about the packaging, its core appeal lies in the author’s undoubted ability to tell a story and to tell it well.

Vivian Meik (1894 – 1955) was at one time a bestselling author, with non-fiction title Nemesis Over Hitler allegedly shifting over 100,000 copies on release in 1941 before paper rationing nipped its success in the bud. Medusa Press of San Francisco have reissued Meik’s 1933 collection DEVILS’ DRUMS (Medusa Press hb, 247pp, $40) in an edition of 300 copies. As well as the ten original stories and author’s foreword, the book contains ‘two uncollected tales, and an episode from one of his autobiographical books that reads remarkably like his stories’, plus an introduction by Douglas A. Anderson.

Nearly all of the tales are set in Colonial Africa, with recurring characters, and mostly it’s ‘dark continent’ stuff, which can’t help but feel dated or worse to modern readers, with the noble white men whose mission it is to bring civilisation to a benighted land feeling constantly embattled as they deal with superstition, savagery and a particularly malignant local brand of sorcery. Think more of the fantasy lands of Clark Ashton Smith than the Africa of H. Rider Haggard. To be fair there are some pretty nasty specimens of the Anglo-Saxon races on display too, but inevitably it’s because they’ve ‘gone native’.

Overall this is lively stuff, but also very formulaic. Title piece ‘Devils’ Drums’ has a white officer tortured by natives and condemned to a living death, the man unaware of his situation. In ‘White Zombie’ a female plantation owner has engaged a witch doctor to staff her farm with zombies, including her own dead husband. A dead witch doctor haunts a white officer in ‘An Acre In Hell’, with a priest called in to finally lay the devil to rest. A white man gone native uses ‘The Doll of Death’ against the wife who deserted him and her new lover, but has the tables turned on him.

Some of the later stories show a bit more ambition and flair, as with ‘…L’Amitie Reste’, in which a man embraces a terrible fate to save the woman he loves from the vengeful spirit of a witch doctor, the story presenting us with an ‘impossible’ situation and then deftly illustrating how it came to be. ‘Ra’ sees African sorcery confronted with an even darker magic, that of ancient Egypt, as a monstrous serpent ravages the countryside in scenes reminiscent of Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm, the story holding the interest all the way and closing with a delightfully humorous touch. A particularly nasty form of revenge works itself out in ‘A Honeymoon in Hate’, when the animosity between two suitors gets completely out of hand. ‘Domira’s Drum’ has a lightness of touch and agreeable sentimentality to it, the tale of a doomed love affair, with an ending that hints at spectral happiness for the deceased lovers. Last story ‘I Leave It To You’ addresses a fine moral dilemma, with a priest setting out the circumstances of a shooting and defying his listeners to say whether it was justified homicide or not.

I enjoyed this volume rather more than not, with its macabre imagery, and Medusa are to be commended for putting Meik’s work back into print, but all the same it is very much a product of its time and I feel will be of greater interest to genre completists and historians, than more general readers.

Sumptuously produced, with an introduction by Simon Clark and artwork by Keith Minnion, BONE MARROW STEW (Tasmaniac Publications hb, 463pp, $40) is billed as ‘Collected Works – Volume One’ of the short fiction of Tim Curran, an American writer who hasn’t been much on my radar, but most assuredly is now. The book is limited to 250 numbered copies and signed by all three contributors. There are seventeen stories, and the collection is remarkable for the diversity of settings that Curran uses and his action packed plots, though when we get down to particulars I much prefer the longer pieces: the novella is where this writer really comes into his own.

Initially Stew gives little hint of the good things to come. Opening story ‘Reign of the Eater’ is a two page flash depicting the eponymous monster that’s overwritten and slightly overwrought, not boding well for what follows. Second story ‘Red Sea’ is longer and livelier, using a familiar scenario, that of men adrift in a raft who must resort to cannibalism, but adding a novel twist and strongly conveying the madness that has them in thrall. ‘The Eyes of Howard Curlix’ has a Lovecraftian feel to it, with the eponymous scientist telling a reporter for one of the more sensation prone tabloids of the things he has seen and how ghost creatures from another dimension are coming to invade this one, the story holding the interest and with a chilling payoff, but still nothing much to get excited about.

Finally, with ‘The Chattering of Tiny Teeth’, Curran hits his stride with the kind of hardcore action oriented horror that seems to be his forte, as soldiers in the trenches of WWI must tackle flesh eating ghouls. The story is realistically grimy and repellent, capturing the horrors of trench warfare and then introducing a macabre foe, with finely drawn characters and some compelling action as the monsters get blasted. ‘Pit Crew’ has prisoners desperate to join a work detail that allows them to work outside of the prison walls for a time, and Curran allows us to believe that the thrust of the story will reside in the interaction between guards and prisoners, only to then deliver a chilling end reveal that places everything in a different context. The novella length ‘Long in the Tooth’ has a wonderful cinematic feel to it, with two travellers in the Fens encountering a tribe of Yarthkins, pygmies that have survived from Neolithic times into the present day. Imagine Wrong Turn given a Fenland setting and with feral pygmies instead of killer hillbillies. Inevitably the story invites comparisons with the earlier ‘Chattering’, but Curran does enough to make it stand on its own feet, with a tension and pace that never lets up.

Nautical settings are another area in which Curran excels. ‘Night and Fog’ has a group of night divers in Monterey Bay running across a sea serpent and having to do whatever it takes to survive. In terms of concept, it seems almost too simplistic to even consider, but Curran makes it work, the story twisting first one way and then another, with a wealth of detail and solid characterisation to flesh out the action, and absolutely no guarantees as to who will make it out the other end. For ‘The Wreck of the Ghost’ we take to the high seas, with the crew of a whaler finding an oceanic graveyard where the mutilated corpses of dead whales float and then encountering the monstrous creature that kills them, the story having a genuine maritime feel to it and holding the attention all the way with edge of the seat moments.

‘One Dark September Night’ was my favourite story in the collection. It tells of what happens when a group of young friends out camping encounter the Dark Man. With a similar loss of innocence and the well-drawn camaraderie among a group of boys on the verge of adulthood, the story reminded me very much of King’s novella classic ‘The Body’ (Stand By Me), but Curran’s work is more overtly shocking, both for the brutality of what happens and the utter amorality of the villain. Underlying it all are questions about what any of us are prepared to do when in extremis and a subtext about the futility of faith in our heroes.

‘Migration’ is the only science fiction piece, though as bloody and macabre as any of the others, with scientists on an alien world finding their base in the path of the local equivalent of soldier ants, though there is a question as to the intelligence of the insect invaders, the suggestion of a hive mind. With ‘The Puppeteer’ Curran boldly steps into Ligotti territory, his character Kroff falling under the spell of legendary puppeteer Obis, but the result of this infatuation is a bloody spectacle, with elements of the surreal grafted onto the narrative. Last story ‘The Legend of Black Betty’ is also the longest, with a mysterious epidemic resulting in inexplicable deaths, and then the deceased coming back to life, causing dismay and madness. Protagonist Oates tracks the cause down to a ghost town, and there in the dead streets he must fight this unnatural pestilence to save everyone, the story offering both gunplay and gut raw emotions.

The author rounds out this excellent collection with some story notes, explaining how his ideas came to take the form they did.

Egaeus Press is a new UK publisher whose mission statement is ‘to publish morbid, decadent and baroque fiction in limited edition hardcover volumes of a quality of ornateness rarely seen in modern books’, and they couldn’t ask for a better start than to launch with a collection by Reggie Oliver, the most highly regarded of the writers currently working in the Jamesian tradition.

SHADOW PLAYS (Egaeus Press hb, 352pp, £30) contains a play, plus a selection of five stories apiece from Oliver’s first two collections, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler, and the author provides an introduction to each work detailing inspiration etc, extras that are every bit as engaging as the stories themselves thanks to the erudition and gentle wit that permeates nearly all of Oliver’s writing. Only 250 copies were printed and although it was only released in March the book is now shown as ‘Out of Print’ on the publisher’s website, though you may be able to pick up a copy elsewhere. It’s a handsome volume, with an art nouveau(ish) cover and striking endpaper image taken from a 1923 film, though it does fall down slightly when it comes to proofreading. I picked up a few errors, most of them in the play (e.g. ‘you are be the first person’ on p294 and ‘seems to have be following’ on p345), and curiously in ‘Miss Marchant’s Cause’ the characters drive to a séance in one car and appear to return in another. It’s not a significant enough problem to spoil the book, but something the publisher needs to pay more attention to.

Lead story ‘Beside the Shrill Sea’ concerns a theatrical troupe doing summer season at a coastal theatre, and the infatuation one member of the cast develops for a local publican, their relationship steeped in cruelty and fated to end in tragedy, with suggestions that something far more sinister is taking place. ‘Miss Marchant’s Cause’ is about a woman who ran an asylum in Victorian times and was imprisoned for certain improprieties, but in the present day a writer and an academic clash over her reputation, with the latter showing signs of possession, the story well told and full of fascinating detail, with an element of sexual tension thrown into the mix.

Almost Jacobean in its trappings, ‘The Boy in Green Velvet’ embraces family tragedy, murder, a missing will and a sinister Victorian toy theatre, as black sheep Uncle Alfred tries to worm his way back into the bosom of his family, the story thoroughly absorbing and moving from mystery to menace, with the precise moment of change impossible to pin down. Theatricals feature again in ‘The Golden Basilica’, with one actor taken up by the unctuous owner of a theatre and finding out the truth about the writer son the man claims to adore, even though the two are estranged, the story throwing up a final revelation that undercuts the whole and reinforcing a subtext on self-delusion.

‘The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini’ tells of a papal inquisitor and his attempt to exterminate a strange cult and how that goes terribly awry, the story infused with visionary and dreamlike imagery, and hints of a some dreadful metaphysics of nihilism. The remaining five stories come from The Complete Symphonies which I’ve reviewed before, and so in lieu of repeating the exercise here, as with the Maynard Sims novella above, I’ll post that review to the Case Notes blog.

Though it contains no outré elements, the play ‘Love Unknown’ is without a doubt the highlight of this collection. M. R. James is himself a character, with his unfinished story of ‘The Fenstanton Witch’ playing counterpoint to the action. Instead of supernatural terrors we get a telling examination of the various relationships within the James’ circle, particularly his unrequited love for the artist James McBryde and how he attempted to sour the young man on marriage, with other characters playing their part and something of hypocrisy shown in the various attitudes to homosexuality. It is a powerful and insightful work, magnificently witty and setting James’ work in the context of his life and times and, if I’m allowed a cliché, worth the price of admission alone.

 

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